In 1776 – the year the Declaration of Independence was signed – London was in its 1,726 year of existence. So to say it has history is an understatement.
But, if you’re underwhelmed by museums packed with cases of war memorabilia, suits of armour that all look the same, and archaic weaponry that’s meant to have significance, have hope: London’s war history has several incredible museums.
Even if guidebooks (ahem, Rick Steves), blogs, and TripAdvisor ratings have burned you before by rating sub-standard museums as top-notch, the museums below won’t have you waiting in the café or rushing past displays.
From one museum-hater to another, I promise these history museums will deliver.
Tower of London
An oldie-but-a-goodie, the Tower of London makes most ‘top things to see in London’ lists, and it should.
As the monarch’s palace before Buckingham existed, it holds a long and diverse history (at one point there was polar bear in the moat!) that will interest even the hardest museum-haters.
To get the full experience, join a guided tour with one of the Beefeaters. They run every 30 minutes until 3.30pm and are included in your entry price, so it’s well-worth the value.
One of the Beefeaters (in full uniform) will walk you around various bits of the Tower and explain what you’re looking at – otherwise, it’s just another old, gated castle. They add humour and make life inside the walls feel a bit more real.
At the end of your tour, you’ll be directed to the central tower, where most of the artefacts are held, but it’s skippable. If you feel like taking a brisk walk past suits of armour, have a go. Otherwise, it’s a classic, boring history museum.
The crown jewels, on the other hand, are a must see. These are the real deal — the Queen and royals don them at coronations and other regal events. If you get a chance, watch The Crown on Netflix before your visit to add some relevance. Or, just enjoy the sparkling diamonds and jewels, noting that the largest cut diamond in the world is situated in these rooms.
You can also walk portions of the walls, visit the massive ravens (bred and raised by the guards), and walk through the Bloody Tower, where the torture devices of old are kept.
Keep in mind, the tower is actually the residence of the Beefeaters (all ex-military and part of the Queen’s royal guard) and their families. It’s fun to imagine coming home at night through the portcullis gate. Though I don’t know how fun it would be to live where thousands of tourists trod every day. To each their own, I guess.
Imperial War Museum
I’m a big fan of interactive, story-like museums, and the Imperial War Museum doesn’t disappoint (also, it’s free!).
Each floor walks you through a separate World War, followed by the Holocaust, captivating you with real stories of how it felt to live through the wars.
While you’ll still see the artefacts you would in a typical museum, the IWM groups items so that they move you along the timeline of the war as if you’re in it. You’ll even walk through a life-sized trench complete with the sound of bullets and thunder booming overhead.
The Imperial War Museum gives you a real idea of what war time does to a country – women take over the workforce, propaganda (even in first world countries) dictates what you know about the battlefields, and dread hovers that you’ll never see your loved ones again or be the next unfortunate target in an air raid.
It opens your eyes to the horrors people lived (and live) through, instead of simply glorifying victories or laying meaningless weapons, bullets, and uniforms behind glass.
If you go to one war museum in London, make it this one. Oh, and it’s free, so if you only get through one floor, you can always return for the other at a later time.
Churchill War Rooms
Stepping into Churchill’s WWII bunker is a time warp. From these rooms underneath the steps of Whitehall, Churchill and his cabinet members directed the outcomes of WWII.
You’ll be led on a guided tour through the rooms that protected the British government during the Blitz. Strangely enough, a direct blow from a bomb would have caved this place in – it’s only 12 feet underground, whereas Hitler’s bunker was 180 feet under by comparison.
You can imagine what life was like down here: tense meetings in the boardroom, strategic planning in the maps room, and a series of underground tunnels, bedrooms, and facilities meant to keep the prime minister and government heads safe.
At £19 a ticket, it isn’t a cheap option, but with 94% of almost 16,500 people on TripAdvisor rating it Very Good or Excellent, it must be worth the entry price.
A bit of history is a must in London, and these three museums are great additions for your itinerary that won’t bore you to pieces.
What’s your favourite history museum in London? Share it in a comment below.